Meet Amedeo Scognamiglio, the Cameo Man

How Amedeo Scognamiglio carved out a niche in a centuries-old trade

Amedeo Scognamiglio’s story doesn’t follow a tidy narrative of beginning, middle, and end. He’s Italian, yes, and a jewelry designer, and he’s based in New York City. But scratch beneath that introductory surface and his tale splits into myriad directions. ­Scognamiglio is cofounder of fine jewelry firm Faraone Mennella; he has his own cameo company, Amedeo; and he’s an HSN personality to boot. Mind you, he’s been doing all three, more or less, at the same time. If this were a film, you’d need split screens to properly tell the tale. So where to begin?

Hand-carved black lava king monkey with diamonds in black rhodium-plated pendant; $3,500; Amedeo, NYC; 212-737-4100;

Seated in his office not far from New York City’s Diamond District, Scognamiglio starts with his hometown, Torre del Greco, Italy, just south of Naples. The city has long been a cameo-manufacturing mecca, rich in both coral and shells, and Scognamiglio’s own family has been plying that trade since 1857. He grew up in his father’s factories and, by age 13, was helping his artist mother with the silhouette designs. “We’d sit at the kitchen table, with the TV playing American shows like Eight Is Enough, and draw,” he recalls. Soon, Scognamiglio began carving the shells, despite his parents’ objections. “They thought I was just playing around and would waste the shells,” he says. Instead, he taught himself the craft.

Hand-carved black lava and white marble skull with crown and diamonds in black rhodium-plated rings; $2,890

Picture it: a teenage Scognamiglio coming home from school and retreating to the basement (“my workshop”), where he’d carve all night long. “Me, my bench, my Walkman playing Whitney Houston,” he says, completing the scene. “I would lose track of time. I remember my mom coming down at, like, two o’clock in the morning. ‘Come to sleep!’ I was really a nerd.”

But at least he knew, early on, that he would always go into the family business. In time, Scognamiglio’s role at the company expanded—he often could be seen zipping around on his red Vespa after school, dropping off shells with the carvers and picking up their finished products, and accompanying his dad to overseas trade shows (including the first JCK show in 1992).

By the time he was in law school (“you go because everybody in your family goes”), he was squeezing in business trips to Japan, where the cameo market was exploding. It was then, at university, that he became best friends with fellow student Roberto Faraone Mennella, whom he’d known casually growing up in Torre del Greco and who would later become his business partner. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Hand-carved turquoise cupid and skull cameos with diamonds around in rose gold-plated pendants; $1,850

First came Scognamiglio’s milestone move to New York City in 1996, just shy of his 24th birthday. He left Italy, in part, to avoid military conscription and because, he says, “It’s tough to work for the family business; nothing changes. I wanted to explore something new.” And while expanding the family cameo business stateside wasn’t easy, he did have some unexpected help. Faraone Mennella had come to the city to study architecture at Parsons and, when, for instance, Scognamiglio couldn’t make a trunk show at Macy’s, his friend Roberto would man the counter.

Hand-carved sardonyx or turquoise cupid with bird and with flute, black diamonds, in rose gold or black rhodium-plated rings; $2,670

But Scognamiglio eventually hit a wall. “I had this creativity I couldn’t express,” he explains. “I was either going to be a salesperson for my dad or be my dad.” So over espresso at a Starbucks, the two friends hatched a plan to launch their own jewelry firm, named ­Faraone Mennella. The idea was to create big, bold, and gold statement jewelry with a La Dolce Vita vibe.

Here’s where the story gets tricky, though. ­Sco­gnamiglio started the line in 2001 while still pushing the family cameo collection on the side. Even ­Faraone Mennella’s big break that year was intertwined with those cameos. Sarah Jessica Parker had one, loved it, tracked down Scognamiglio’s number, and even went so far as to give him Sex and the City stylist Patricia Field’s phone number—which ­Scognamiglio proceeded to lose. Kismet, however, lent a hand. While scouting studio space for Faraone Mennella, the two stumbled on the show’s wardrobe trailers, and the rest is history. They gave Field their starter Faraone Mennella samples and the brand made its debut on no greater an advertising vehicle than Kim Cattrall’s sexy PR maven, Samantha Jones.

Scognamiglio (right) and college pal–turned–partner Roberto Faraone Mennella examine their designs.

Things were good for the duo. The press loved them, the retailers wanted them. But Scognamiglio and Mennella soon faced a common young-designer hurdle: making the shift from buzzy “It” status to an actual thriving business. “You have to grow up,” ­Sco­gnamiglio says. “The retailers want you to support them. You worry about making ends meet. Instead of designing with your customer in mind, you focus on the spreadsheet—and that’s the end of it. Thank God, we went there, struggled, and overcame that.”

It helps that both men are pretty savvy when it comes to distribution. Even when the economy crashed in 2008–09, they did what Scognamiglio calls the “U-turn.” Instead of lowering prices or going into debt with department stores, “we decided to go super-super luxury,” opening a store in London in 2010, followed by another in Capri in 2011. When it comes to picking wholesale partners, they’re also crystal clear on what they want—and what works. “We don’t like the approach of being everywhere,” says ­Scognamiglio. “Our ­jewelry is showy. It sells in urban cities, not suburban areas. Our collection performs when it’s surrounded by de Grisogono, Pomellato, Verdura—that’s the kind of woman who understands it.”

Hand-carved sardonyx girl profile cameo with black diamonds around in rose gold-plated ring; $2,670

Scognamiglio’s success with Faraone Mennella also allowed him to pave his own way as a ­sixth-generation cameo maker. In 2006, he launched his Amedeo line and opened a boutique on the Upper East Side, dedicated to his take on the traditional cameo. “I started with big rings; I didn’t have a single brooch,” he recalls. “It was very risky.” That’s why he went the retail route first. “I didn’t want stores to tell me what they wanted. I needed to know what I wanted,” he continues. “If you don’t know how to sell, merchandise, and present your line, you cannot expect other stores to do it for you.”

Hand-carved sardonyx and cornelian skull cameos with diamonds around in rose gold or oxidized silver pendants; $2,800

Recently, Scognamiglio has become even more experimental with his cameo designs, eschewing yellow gold for black lava and swapping feminine profiles for hollow-eyed skulls or the three wise monkeys. Next season brings baroque motifs such as griffins and phoenixes. It’s a creative audacity he chalks up to finally feeling self-confident, artistically, and to having the security of Faraone Mennella to push him further in this arena. Next year, he plans to open free-standing Amedeo shops in London and Capri, separate from the Faraone Mennella outposts already there. “I don’t mix the brands,” he explains, adding that Faraone Mennella will be opening stores in Tokyo and Aspen next fall. “It’s like having two children. I want each to have its own life, with its own friends.”

All this, and we haven’t even gotten around to Scognamiglio’s gig as an HSN personality. He’s been pitching his cameos—first his family’s, then his own—on the network for more than a decade. In fact, this chapter begins around the same time as the others. In 2001, he was on a plane from New York City to Italy when he sat next to a friend of a friend who knew someone at HSN. They exchanged numbers, he went in for a meeting, and soon, he found himself pushed in front of the cameras at 11 o’clock at night. He sold out of cameos 15 minutes into his allotted hour—$2,000 worth.

Scognamiglio concedes that his HSN cameo collection, now called Amedeo NYC, helped bolster the other brands during the tougher years; all three exist under the umbrella company RFMAS Group Inc. Come spring, there will be a new addition to the stable: Scognamiglio and Faraone Mennella are debuting a diffusion spin-off of their fine jewelry line, RFMAS Studio, on HSN. The offerings will be unabashedly fun and splashy—massive cabochon collar necklaces and candy-colored bejeweled cuffs, inspired by their higher-priced couture collection.

It’s obvious these statement pieces are fake—and that’s the point. “This is the faux red carpet of Faraone Mennella,” he says. “Instead of seeing others copy us, we copied ourselves.” (Prices for Amedeo NYC and RFMAS Studio range from $50 to $500; compare that with their luxury counterparts, which retail for $1,500–$10,000 and $1,500–$1 million, respectively.)

Just when you think Scognamiglio’s career couldn’t get more schizophrenic, he says, this time, Faraone Mennella will be headlining the show. “On TV, you need a story. My legitimacy is the cameos. Roberto’s story will be designing for fashion, red carpet, socialites,” he says. “Plus, if it’s the two of us, plus the hosts, it’s going to be like a crazy episode of The View.”

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